If there was one positive aspect to the 7-9 team new coach Mike McCoy took over it was the Chargers defense. Under first-year defensive coordinator John Pagano, the veteran-led defensive unit showed great promise, especially against the run. However, age, injuries and a lack of depth eventually caught up to them and as a result, new GM Tom Telesco decided it’s out with the old and in with the new.
Gone are DT’s Antonio Garay and Aubrayo Franklin; DE Vaughn Martin; LB’s Shaun Phillips; Takeo Spikes; Antwan Barnes and Demorrio Williams; and three-quarters of its starting secondary — CB’s Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason, along with S Atari Bigby.
Despite the criticism of the team’s draft the past five years, former GM A.J. Smith didn’t leave the cupboard bare for Telesco on defense. Led by S Eric Weddle and ILB Donald Butler, the defense Smith assembled has some young playmakers in DE’s Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes, but the loss of ten veterans leaves some gaping holes to fill.
Despite being hand-cuffed by the salary cap space he inherited from Smith, Telesco was able to land some solid starters (DE/OLB Dwight Freeney and CB Derek Cox) via free agency and signed all of his draft choices by early June. Having everyone signed well before camp opened is a great advantage for developing team cohesiveness under a new head coach.
As the Chargers opened training camp this week, here is a look at three questions surrounding the defense and an X-factor question in the endzone.
With the loss of Garay and Franklin on the defensive front, can the Chargers maintain a solid rush defense with only one veteran – Cam Thomas – returning to the all-important defensive tackle position in the 3-4 scheme?
Coming off a second consecutive 20 tackle season, the 26-yearold Thomas couldn’t find himself in a better situation as he enters his fourth NFL season. Already penciled-in as the starter, Thomas is entering a contract year with his only competition being four undrafted rookies at the start of camp.
What the rookies are lacking in experience they will hopefully make up for with their size. Joining the 6-4, 335 Thomas is Kwame Geathers (6-6, 335); Brandon Moore (6-5, 317); Jamarkus McFarland (6- 2, 305) and Byron Jerideau (6-1, 334). Despite not being drafted, keep an eye on Geathers who has a proud football lineage – he has two brothers currently in the NFL and his father, uncle and cousin played in the league as well.
With a steady rotation at defensive tackle, the defense finished 2012 ranked 9th overall (326.4 yds. per gm) and 6th against the run (96.4 yds. per gm). In Liuget and Reyes the Chargers possess two of the best young ends in the league. If free agent veteran DE Jarius Wynn can be effective and give the starters a breather, the line will be fine with both Liuget and Reyes having the capability of playing defensive tackle as well.
Moving up to draft Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o and the signing of Freeney makes the linebacker corps one the key positions to watch as training camp unfolds. The question is can Te’o live up to his pre-national championship hype and does Freeney have anything left in the tank?
After a disastrous performance against Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game, Te’o will replace Spikes at inside linebacker. Despite his poor performance in the biggest game of his life, Telesco wasn’t hesitant to move up in the second round to select former Fighting Irish star.
Fortunately for Te’o, he’ll be playing next to and being tutored by one of the better up-and-coming players in the league in Butler. Bront Bird, Andrew Gachkar and Jonas Mouton should provide solid depth as backups and on special teams.
With last years’ top pick Melvin Ingram likely out for the year with a torn ACL, the outside ‘backer position is the big concern. Jarret Johnson is a stalwart against the run and it’s now or never for Larry English to step up and prove that he isn’t a wasted first-round pick. Pagano is expected to design special packages for the 32-year-old Freeney to best take advantage of his pass rushing skills – the last season he garnered double-digits in sacks (10) was 2010. Sixth-round pick, OLB Tourek Williams (6-4; 262), will have a great opportunity to show his skills as well.
With three starters gone from the secondary, which one of the young defensive backs is ready to step up and be a prime-time player?Having missed 17 games over the past three seasons, the signing of Cox could be a major coup for the defense if he can stay healthy. According to Pro Football Focus, quarterbacks had a passer rating of 44.5 against him, the lowest of all NFL cornerbacks in 2012. He finished last season with four interceptions and gave up just one touchdown pass.
Shareece Wright is the front-runner for the other starting cornerback spot with second-year man Johnny Patrick, 5th-round draft pick Steve
Williams and free agent rookies Cornelius Brown and Greg Gaston battling for a roster spot.
In Weddle the Chargers have one of the best free safeties in the league, so the focus is on the strong safety position. With Brandon Taylor put on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list while recovering from a torn ACL he suffered at the end of last season, Marcus Gilchrist and special teams’ standout Darrell Stuckey will compete for the starting job opposite Weddle. With the secondary producing just 10 of the 14 interceptions last season, Pagano is hoping to improve those numbers drastically with the influx of new players.
The Endzone: The X-factor question for the defense is how much pressure they can put on opposing quarterbacks? In addition to facing Peyton Manning twice, some of the best quarterbacks in the NFL are on the schedule this year. This young, rebuilt secondary will be tested often by the likes of Matt Shaub, Mike Vick, Tony Romo, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Andy Dalton and Eli Manning. The defense ranked 18th against the pass (230.1 yds. per gm); 16th in scoring (21.9 pts. per gm.); T16th in interceptions (14) and T11th in sacks (38) at the end of last season – and although they finished in the top 10 in rush defense, they must to a better job tackling. Led by Weddle’s 83 tackles, six defensive backs were listed among the top 10 in team tackles, with Cason (62) and Jammer (55) finishing second and third, respectively. If the tackling does not improve from the front seven to get the defense off the field (see Ray Rice), the team will be in for a long season.